Candlemas
being
The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple and
The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary

February 2nd
 

Wolcum Yole
(Anon. 14th cent.)

Wolcum, Wolcum, Wolcum be thou hevenč king,
Wolcum Yole! Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcum, Innocentes every one,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum, seintes lefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!
                   Candelmesse, Quene of bliss,
                   Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcum, Wolcum, Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum Yole, Wolcum alle and make good cheer,
Wolcum alle another yere, Wolcum Yole, Wolcum!

sung by the California Boys' Choir on this link
to a performance of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols
 

The Yuletide that we welcomed on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25th wound its way through the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the feasts of the Christmas saints. It continued in a new liturgical season with the Wise Men, the Baptism of Our Lord, and the various manifestations of Epiphanytide. While Epiphanytide may continue a bit longer, depending on the date of Easter, the Christmas festal cycle ends on Candlemas, the last feast of Yuletide, forty days after Christmas. This is the day when the Holy Family present themselves in the Temple to complete the ritual purification of a mother after childbirth and to redeem the firstborn son who by right belongs to God. Saint Luke tells the story (Luke 2:22-38) that introduces the aged Simeon, a devout old man, and the apparently even more ancient prophetess Anna, of the (mostly) lost tribe of Asher, both of whom, like all of Israel, have waited many years for the Messiah who would redeem Israel. It is a moment of intimate and electric drama. Mary and Joseph have come simply to fulfill their obligations as faithful Jews. But in this Encounter, or Meeting, as the Orthodox call this Feast, Israel not only recognizes her Messiah but it is revealed to his own people that, as Isaiah prophesied, it is too small a thing for him to redeem only Israel. On the day that his human ancestor Solomon consecrated the Temple, the glory of the Lord filled the Temple. On this day, the glory of the Lord once again is seen in the Temple, not hidden in a cloud, but in the physical presence of the Incarnate God, who is to be the Redeemer of the whole world, a "light to lighten the Gentiles."

 


Nunc dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
     according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
     which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
     and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Luke 2:29-32
 

Rembrandt, 1627, Presentation in the TempleThe great master of light in classical art, Rembrandt von Rijn, accentuates this central theme of the Feast in his painting of the "Presentation in the Temple." Joseph is entirely in the shadows and, while there is light from a window bathing a wall behind them, the light that illuminates Mary, Anna, and, most especially, Simeon emanates from the Holy Child himself--the Sun of Righteousness. Candlemas comes at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, a moment celebrated by pagan cultures as a milestone in the resurgence of the sun and the recovery of light. For Christians, the changing light in creation serves as an exclamation point to the even greater redemptive work of the true Light of the world in the new creation. Furthermore, like the subtly prophetic shedding of the blood of Jesus at his circumcision, and the mystically meaningful gift of myrrh from the Wise Men, the words of Simeon on this day point to the ultimate revelation of the glory of God in the final act of the drama of redemption and new creation when he says that a sword will pierce the soul of Mary. For, although her firstborn is redeemed this day, she will be one of the eyewitnesses on that Passover when the Lamb of God, the son she has presented to God in the Temple, dies on the cross to redeem not only the firstborn of Israel but all people from the dark night of death.

The Christmas and Easter festal cycles operate on very different sets of rules, one based on fixed days in the calendar, the other based on the cycles of the sun and moon. The earliest possible date for Ash Wednesday is February 4th, just two days after Candlemas. This has not occurred in many years and will not occur again for many years. Nevertheless, the fact that it can happen is a useful reminder that in spite of the different ways in which these cycles are dated, they are integrally related theologically. The conclusion of Yuletide points unmistakably to the seasons of Lent and Passiontide that lie ahead, as Simeon foretells that Mary's joy on this day will be turned to bitter sorrow in the years to come, in events and an outcome that she could not yet imagine.
 

Nuestra Senora de Dolores, Oil on Tin Retablo, Mexico, 19th cent.

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
     Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
          and for a sign that is spoken against
     (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
          that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

Luke 2:33-35

 

The Blessing of Candles and Procession

The liturgical event that gives this Feast its popular name is the blessing and distribution of candles, usually followed by a procession. The candles themselves have often had symbolic meaning ascribed to them. There are various ceremonies in the course of the church year in which a candle is seen as a symbol of Christ himself. The pure wax is understood to represent his human body, while the flaming wick represents his divinity. Candles blessed on this day are taken home, like palms, and kept for use at critical moments in the coming year. They may be lit in times of danger, such as severe storms and floods. Someone facing a personal crisis or difficult decision might light the Candlemas candle while praying and thinking through his situation. It is customary to light them when a priest ministers at a sick-bed, especially when death is imminent. Fisheaters.com records this old poem that describes the use of these candles.

This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen;
And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright:
A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if
At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm
Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard,
Nor any devil's spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail.

It is most appropriate that the blessing and procession begin somewhere away from the High Altar, which should be the destination, but not the starting point. Where weather and other circumstances permit, the blessing and procession might begin outside of the church, in front of the main entrance. A room apart from the church itself is a suitable alternative. It would also be fitting for the blessing and distribution to take place at the Christmas crčche, especially if that is not in the chancel. Wherever the blessing of the candles takes place, the figures of the Holy Family should be carried in the procession to the High Altar, or to a suitable place prepared for them near the High Altar.

It should be noted here that there are competing traditions regarding Christmas decorations. One tradition is that they are removed from the church and homes on Twelfth Night and the burning of the greens takes place that night. Another tradition allows for some or all of the decorations to remain until Candlemas (see below). In either case, the crčche remains in the church and homes until the Eucharist of Candlemas, following which it is dismantled and all remaining Christmas decorations are also removed.

In some churches, it is customary to bless the entire supply of candles to be used liturgically in the coming year, as well as to bless candles for the faithful to carry in procession and then take to their homes. Traditionally, this blessing takes place before the celebration of the Eucharist on the morning of the Feast. However, with its theme of light, it might also be celebrated on the Eve, as prelude to Evensong or an evening Mass.

Celebrant:  Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
People:      Thanks be to God.

The following five prayers are derived from the traditional rite for blessing candles. The rite may be abbreviated by omitting two or three of the first four prayers. The fifth prayer should always be included.

Celebrant:  The Lord be with you.
People:       And also with you.
Celebrant:  Let us pray.

Holy Lord, almighty and everlasting God: You created all things out of nothing and, by the labor of your creatures the bees, we have wax for the making of these candles; we thank you that you heard the prayer of your righteous and devout servant Simeon and we now humbly pray you, through the invocation of your holy Name and through the intercession of blessed Mary ever-virgin and all the saints, to bless and sanctify these candles for the use of your faithful people, and for the health and preservation of their bodies and souls on land and sea and in the air. From your holy heaven and the throne of your glory, hear, O Lord, the voices of your people who desire to carry these candles reverently in their hands and to praise you with song; have mercy on all who call upon you, and whom you have redeemed with the precious Blood of your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God: On this day your only-begotten Son was presented in the Temple to be received into the arms of blessed Simeon; we humbly pray you to bless, hallow, and kindle with the light of your heavenly benediction these candles which your servants desire to receive and to carry, lighted in honor of your holy Name. By offering them to you, our Lord and God, may we be inflamed with the fire of your love, and made worthy to be presented in the heavenly temple of your glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one, now and for ever. Amen.
 

Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light who enlightens every one who comes into this world: Pour your blessing upon these candles, and sanctify them with your grace. As they burn with visible fire and dispel the darkness of night, so may our hearts, kindled by the invisible fire of your Holy Spirit, be free from the blindness of sin. Grant that with purified minds we may be able to discern that which is pleasing to you and profitable to our salvation. And, when the dark perils of this life are past, let us be worthy to attain a place in the unfailing light of your eternal Kingdom, where with your eternal Father and the same Spirit, you live and reign in perfect Trinity, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, who by your servant Moses commanded the purest oil to be prepared for the lamps that burned in the Temple: pour the grace of your blessing upon these candles that, as they shed their outward light abroad, so by your goodness the inward light of the Holy Spirit may never be lacking in our souls; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O Lord Jesus Christ, you appeared among humankind in the substance of our mortal flesh and, as on this day, you were presented in the Temple; and there the venerable Simeon, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, recognized you, took you into his arms, and blessed you: Grant that, by your mercy, we may be enlightened and taught by the same Holy Spirit and may truly acknowledge you and faithfully love you; who with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As the candles are distributed and lighted, the Song of Simeon is sung in the following manner:

A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

Lord, you now have set your servant free,
    to go in peace as you have promised.
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
     whom you have prepared for all the world to see.
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

 

Hymns and psalms appropriate to the Feast are sung as the procession moves forward. The following antiphon and psalm is appropriate as the procession approaches the Altar.

We have waited in silence on your loving-kindness, O Lord, in the midst of your temple.

Psalm 48:1-2, 10-13

As the figures of the Holy Family are placed on the Altar or other place prepared for them, this or another appropriate collect may be said:

O God, you have made this day holy by the presentation of your Son in the Temple, and by the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Mercifully grant that we, who delight in her humble readiness to be the birth-giver of the Only-begotten, may rejoice for ever in our adoption as his sisters and brothers; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

If the Eucharist is to follow, it begins immediately with the Gloria in excelsis. If Evensong is to follow, it begins with the Phos hilaron. The people continue to hold lighted candles until the end of the Collect of the Day at the Eucharist, and relight them for the reading of the Gospel. At Evensong, they may extinguish their candles at the conclusion of the Phos hilaron.
 

El Nińo Dios

In Mexico, the customs of the Feast of Candelaria center around the figure of the infant Jesus from the Christmas créche. This article from the New York Times describes how this custom has been carried by Mexicans to their new homes in other countries. The popular figure of Santo Nińo de Atocha sometimes replaces the infant Jesus in this custom.

Candlemas at Home

Selected portions of the service above may also be used in a home celebration, which should include a procession with candles. The procession begins with prayers at the family crčche. The honor of carrying the figure of Jesus might be given to the person who found the token in the King's Cake on Epiphany. Other members of the household carry Mary and Joseph. The dining room, festively glowing with the light of many candles, would be a good destination for the procession which should include the singing of appropriate songs and hymns that everyone can sing about the Feast or about light in general (for example, "This little light of mine"). The Holy Family then become the centerpiece on the table for a Candlemas party or dinner. When they are placed on the table, everyone sings (or says) the Song of Simeon, Nunc dimittis. The family grace is then said and the festive meal is served.

We are delighted to discover that The Year & Our Children: Catholic Family Celebrations for Every Season, by Mary Reed Newland, has recently been reprinted. Catholic Culture has an excerpt from the original edition here, describing another home celebration of the Feast.

Candlemas Crępes

In France, Candlemas, La Chandeleur, is celebrated with crępes. According to tradition, Pope Gelasius I, whose sacramentary is one of the first to list this Feast, is credited with having fed pilgrims with crępes. People looking for more ancient roots to the custom claim that the round crępe resembles the sun whose return is celebrated on the pagan festivals often celebrated at the same time of year. As the Church has often incorporated homely folk customs into her observances, we see no conflict here, for Christ is indeed the Sun of Righteousness. In fact, pancakes serve a very useful function at this time of year, especially when Lent begins soon after Candlemas, for crępes and other sorts of pancakes are a good way of using up eggs and butter and other rich foods that are given up in Lent. Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) is another day when crępes are eaten--with various rich fillings. (We are particularly happy to know this tradition because our preference is to celebrate a New Orleans style Mardi Gras, with Cajun food. If we have our crępes on Candlemas, we can have the best of all worlds!

The French have added to the custom of eating crępes on la Chandeleur a bit of ritual related to their making. When it is time to turn the crępe, the cook is supposed to hold a coin in one hand, make a wish, and flip the crępe in its pan with the other. Everyone is invited to attempt this operation and those who are successful may expect good luck in the coming year. If your crępe pan is sticky, like ours, this may not work so well--but much fun will be had in the attempt, anyway.

Crępes are a versatile food and may be eaten as a main course or as dessert. Our favorite dessert crępes for Candlemas are filled with strawberries and whipped cream. The strawberry is known as the "Fruitful Virgin" and is regarded as sacred to Mary.

 

A Recipe for Dessert Crępes

The batter can be used immediately, or refrigerated for up to three days for use as needed.
 

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 eggs
˝ cup milk
˝ cup water
˝ teaspoon vanilla
ź teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter

Place the ingredients in a blender in the order given. Blend until smooth. Or, mix in a bowl with a wire whisk or mixer, first combining flour and eggs, then adding liquids gradually. Beat until smooth; add other ingredients. Pour a thin layer of batter on a hot iron griddle or crępe pan, tipping the pan to spread the batter evenly. When the surface of the crępe is covered with small bubbles, turn the crępe with a spatula or by flipping it and cook briefly until done. This will make about 16 crępes. Crępes will keep up to a month in the freezer or a week in the refrigerator.

The strawberry filling is simplicity itself. Simply slice the strawberries and sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. When the crępes are ready, fill them with strawberries, add some whipped cream, and roll. If fresh strawberries are not available, and if you forgot to buy and freeze some when they were in season, strawberry jam makes a very satisfactory substitute.
 

Candlemas Traditions

The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) describes two old Candlemas customs. In the first set of verses, the "Christmas brand" is the Yule Log.

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn ;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year,
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

The remains of the great log which burned during Twelvetide are to be rekindled on Candlemas. Even so, the log is not to be burned entirely. A bit of it is to be preserved in a safe place to be used to ignite the Yule Log on the next Christmas. The ashes are to be spread on the gardens to ensure their fertility. Meanwhile, the brand that is preserved is a protection against evil in the place it is kept.

Herrick also explains that Candlemas is the day when all Christmas decorations must be taken down. Failure to do so will have dire consequences:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye deck's the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind:
For look! How many leaves there be
Neglected there, Maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

The poet seems to have his tongue in cheek as he teases the superstitious.

Call it superstition if you will, but it is no accident that Candlemas is also Groundhog Day. Several pre-Christian cultures regarded the mid-point of winter as a day of special discernment about the weather. And these traditions carried over into the Christian dispensation. Thus,

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o the winter's to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o the winter's gane at Yule.

In Britain, prognosticating animals were not needed. The weather itself revealed all one needed to know. Indeed, groundhogs and other weather-predicting animals did so (or so it was claimed) based on the same principle: a sunny day, whether there is an animal to be spooked by it or not, is an omen of bad weather and an extended winter. A nice cloudy outlook on Candlemas not only provides a properly darkened setting for the ceremony of candles, but it also offers a promise of better weather coming soon.

Rembrandt, 1666, Simeon with the Christ Child 

A Song for Simeon
by T.S. Eliot
 

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow  hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

     Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There were never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children's children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat's path, and the fox's home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

     Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel's consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

     According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints' stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also.)
I am tired of my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

 


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